Smile! You're on hidden camera
With a million covert cameras in the US, is there any expectation of privacy anymore?
A Manhattan restaurateur thinks an employee is dipping into the till.Skip to next paragraph
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Behind a crack in the brick facade - a little bigger than a pinhole - he installs a tiny camera with a wide-angle lens.
An estranged husband wants to know who's visiting his wife's home. He puts a camera in a soccer ball and plants it in the bushes out front.
Money disappears from a businessman's accounting room. He installs a smoke detector with a camera inside and discovers his wife is the one doing the pilfering.
Welcome to the brave new video world, where the clock on the mantel or your neighbor's tie could easily hide a camera. In 1999, 125,000 "spy" cameras were sold in New York alone, more than triple the year before. Public use of surveillance cameras, almost unheard of a few years ago, has skyrocketed. Chicago is about to join other major cities, like Miami, Atlanta, and New York, that are giving police an extra set of eyes. Run that red light, and thanks to a hidden camera, you may get a ticket in the mail a month from now.
"People should know they are being watched, and there's no getting away with anything anymore," says Arielle Jamil, of the Counter Spy Shop in New York, one of the world's leading sellers of surveillance equipment. "Big brother is definitely watching more than people think."
Advocates note that cameras are inexpensive and effective crime-prevention tools. Britain, with 1.5 million closed-circuit TVs that track people from Mayfair to Trafalgar Square, is an undisputed world leader in surveillance. Studies there show the all-seeing eyes do cut crime. In 1998, after cameras were installed in one neighborhood, pickpocketing dropped 44 percent, and street crime by 20 percent.
But experts contend that the trouble just moves around the corner. And as the camera craze picks up momentum in America, with 1 million cameras nationwide, critics contend that "video voyeurism" raises new questions about privacy. When you walk down the street, do you have a right to know if the police or the local deli owners are watching you?
The rule of thumb has always been that, if you can see it from the street, it's fair game. But what about in your office? Or in the restaurant where you're eating? Or in your car as you're driving? "The explosion of video surveillance cameras around America has taken place without any public discussion about the pros and cons," says Norman Siegel of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
While there are strict rules defining when a person may audiotape a conversation, that's not the case with video taping. Currently, the courts use the "expectation of privacy" standard. In other words, it's illegal to videotape where a person believes he or she has a right to privacy, such as a bathroom or a locker room. But what about in a fitting room or a hotel room?
One hotel chain, in an effort to catch a maid suspected of stealing, reportedly planted hidden cameras in a room. When they saw her trying on a guest's negligee, she was let go. But what about the guest?